It’s 2008, not 1938

J. Peter Scoblic, executive editor of the New Republic, is the author of "U.S. vs. Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security."

In a speech to the Israeli parliament Thursday, President Bush took a swipe at Barack Obama for his willingness to negotiate with evil regimes.

“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Bush said. “We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is -- the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

But if there is anything that has been discredited by history, it is the argument that every enemy is Hitler, that negotiations constitute appeasement, and that talking will automatically lead to a slaughter of Holocaust-like proportions. It is an argument that conservatives made throughout the Cold War, and, if the charge seemed overblown at the time, it seems positively ludicrous with the clarity of hindsight.


The modern conservative movement was founded in no small part on the idea that presidents Truman and Eisenhower were “appeasing” the Soviets. The logic went something like this: Because communism was evil, the United States should seek to destroy it, not coexist with it; the bipartisan policy of containment, which sought to prevent the further spread of communism, was a moral and strategic folly because it implied long-term coexistence with Moscow. Conservative foreign policy guru James Burnham wrote entire books claiming that containment -- which, after the Cold War, would be credited with defeating the Soviet Union -- constituted “appeasement.”

Instead, conservatives agitated for the rollback of communism, and they opposed all negotiations with the Soviets. When Eisenhower welcomed Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev to the United States in 1959, William F. Buckley Jr., the right’s leader, complained that the act of “diplomatic sentimentality” signaled the “death rattle of the West.”

Conservatives even applied this critique to one of the most dangerous moments in human history: the Cuban missile crisis, during which the United States and the Soviet Union nearly came to nuclear blows over Moscow’s deployment of missiles 90 miles off the American coast. When President Kennedy successfully negotiated a peaceful conclusion to the crisis, conservative icon Barry Goldwater protested that he had appeased the Soviets by promising not to invade Cuba if they backed down.

The Soviets withdrew their missiles in what was widely seen as a humiliation to Khrushchev, but Goldwater believed that Kennedy’s diplomacy gave “the communists one of their greatest victories in their race for world power that they have enjoyed to date.” To Goldwater, it was far preferable to risk nuclear war with the Soviets than to give up our right to roll back Fidel Castro.

Indeed, conservatives considered virtually any attempt to bring the arms race under control as a surrender to communism. When the SALT I agreement capping nuclear arsenals came to Capitol Hill, conservative Rep. John Ashbrook (whose presidential candidacy Buckley supported in 1972) said that “the total history of man indicates we can place very little reliance on treaties or written documents. This is especially true when the agreements are with nations or powers which have aggressive plans. Hitler had plans. Chamberlain’s Munich served only to deaden the free world to reality. The communists have plans. SALT will merely cause us to lower our guard, possibly fatally.”

A few years later, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the elected face of the burgeoning neoconservative movement, charged President Carter with “appeasement in its purest form” for negotiating SALT II, which set equal limits on the number of U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles and bombers.


Ronald Reagan, whose election in 1980 was seen as the culmination of the conservative movement, dubbed SALT II “appeasement” as well, but the trope would come back to bite him. Although Reagan pleased the right enormously during his first three years in office with his military expansion, his call for rollback and his advocacy of missile defenses, conservatives reacted with horror once he began serious negotiations with the Soviets. When he and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, which for the first time eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons, Buckley’s National Review dubbed it “suicide.” The Conservative Caucus took out a full-page newspaper ad saying “Appeasement is as unwise in 1988 as in 1938.” It paired photos of Reagan and Gorbachev with photos of Neville Chamberlain and Hitler.

Containment, negotiation, nuclear stability -- each of these things helped protect the United States and end the Cold War. And yet, at the time, conservatives thought each was synonymous with appeasement.

The Bush administration has been little different, refusing for years to talk to North Korea or Iran about their nuclear programs because it wanted to defeat evil, not talk to it. The result was that Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon and Iran’s uranium program continued unfettered. (By contrast, when the administration negotiated with Libya -- an act that its chief arms controller, John Bolton, had previously derided as, yes, “appeasement” -- it succeeded in eliminating Tripoli’s nuclear program.)

Alas, John McCain accused President Clinton of “appeasement” for engaging North Korea, instead calling for “rogue state rollback,” and now he dismisses the idea of negotiations with Iran. Given conservatism’s historical record, Obama’s inclination to negotiate seems only sensible. When will conservatives learn that it is 2008, not 1938?